Movie Review: Beauty and the Beast
By Ben Gruchow
March 24, 2017

What did you say about my movie?

The 2017 Beauty and the Beast is the cinematic equivalent of taking a moderate sedative with a cup of coffee. It is drowsy and inert, yet for 129 minutes stubbornly refuses to end. Its successes in lighting and set design are overtaken by artificial visuals and listless photography, antsy editing, flabby storytelling, and dialogue that has been mostly transplanted from the earlier film to diminishing effect. When we look past those symptoms, we’re able to reflect on how wholly unnecessary the whole thing is. It says something that this is roughly the gazillionth live-action adaptation/sequel/reimagining of a nostalgia-driven property we’ve seen in the last couple of years, it’s by no means the worst of them, and yet it’s the first that I feel compelled to actually dislike - so mercenary and profit-driven does it feel in every frame of its being.

What we have in front of us is a straight remake of the 1991 animated Disney film: it begins and ends at the same place, adopts most of the same incident, and in the process provides an excellent case study for future film-school students - how some animation can sell design and mood in ways that live action simply cannot. As before, the story revolves around three characters: a country girl named Belle (Emma Watson), her would-be suitor and the village chauvinist Gaston (Luke Evans), and a cursed prince transformed into a Beast for his inability to feel love and empathy (Dan Stevens). Much of the story concerns Belle and the Beast, her becoming his prisoner for trespassing and the two of them gradually becoming closer (her love being necessary for him to regain his humanity), although much more of the screen time than you’d think is devoted to Gaston and his machinations to win Belle’s hand in marriage, Beast or no.

All of this is wrapped up with a desire on the part of the storytellers in both iterations of the film to explore the different forms a monstrous nature can take, via growing humanity in a nonhuman, outwardly undesirable form and receding humanity in an outwardly desirable form. In the 1991 film, it was also something more than that: an animated feature that told a love story from a relatively adult perspective. We can abstain from examining the unpleasant implications of the way that love story formulates; it’s been well-examined by this point already, and this iteration does nothing to fundamentally change it.

The original 1991 animated film, you’ll recall, was right around 80 minutes long sans end credits. What’s done here is something of an unwelcome magic trick: how to add 40 minutes of inconsequential footage to a story and make the thing feel somehow choppier and slighter. The explanation behind this feeling, I think, is that this film is more interested in showing off Moments from the original, and less interested in the connective tissue in between those moments, or in even stitching the moments themselves together with much in the way of flow. That showcase of Moments forms the ultimate in feeding audience nostalgia with an inferior photocopy. Did you treasure the iconic ballroom-dancing scene in the 1991 film, which showed off the Disney animators’ command of the revolutionary CAPS capabilities (even if it never quite reconciled the difference between a three-dimensional backdrops and two-dimensional participants)? Well, here’s the same thing again, except in live-action and incapable of the same dreamlike feeling of fluidity.

So no, this new film doesn’t change anything about the story from before; what it does do, somehow, is accelerate it. Belle’s journey from encountering the Beast, to trying to escape, to the two of them becoming friends and something more, seems to take place in between crucial scenes, so that each time we see them, the plot has inched forward by some degree. The earlier film used music and montage to navigate the requisite amount of story time within its compact frame; this one is possessed by too frequent an urge to pad those transitory moments with dialogue, and it takes us out of the process just enough to notice that there doesn’t seem to actually be much momentum building, just mechanical forward motion in fits and starts. This version of the story has always had a continuity problem with fitting its incident into the amount of chronological time allotted to it, but never was it put so front-and-center.

If the film were absorbing enough on the level of visuals or music, it might’ve helped make up for the unearthed shortcoming; unfortunately, what we instead have is an object lesson in what happens when a story that clearly favors the medium of animation is forced into live action in the age of photorealistic CGI. Most of the movie has a stage-bound look to it, whether outdoor or indoor. Belle’s village, which we spend most of the opening sequence in, seems curiously confined and insulated and walled-off for what is supposed to be the open French countryside; nowhere is this more evident than the strange relocation of her house, from the outskirts of town seemingly right into the middle of the village square. The Beast’s castle is made up of smallish sets in individual scenes and antiseptic CGI in any medium to long shot; scenes between characters that take place outdoors are flatly composited against digital backdrops in ways that diminish any sense of scope.

The characters, too, are unappealing in transition: the trio of Lumiere, Cogsworth, and Mrs. Potts are robbed of the aesthetic given to them by the animated film, which allowed them to bend and flex and change shape by enough of a degree that we saw the personality before the function. Here it's the opposite: photorealism has clearly been part of the directive in crafting the effects, and no matter what is done with lighting and design to make the props in the Beasts’ castle human and endearing, Lumiere is never anything but a candelabra gained sentience. It's creepy, and not in a way that is backed up by any other facet of the production.

The Beast himself is the film’s biggest weak spot, and this owes more to him being, as designed, uniquely suited for animation and uniquely unsuited for realistic fur and limb and muscle movement. I recall the scene from the 1991 film, where the Beast rescues Belle from the wolves, and we see the animalistic façade fade from his face a second before he collapses from injury. Implications of character motivation aside, it's a great moment in the expressive power of animation, and one in which this new version’s equivalent - and there are a lot of equivalents here - is entirely incapable.

The movie’s thundering inessentiality and hidebound nature toward its predecessor never quite stop being a liability. Good narratives allow us to feel the presence of an invisible hand guiding events and developments in organic ways. With this film, the hand guiding it is explicitly a film that carried out its events in superior ways, and after we realize that nothing is going to be different (this realization takes all of a couple of minutes), we become that invisible hand by virtue of our familiarity with the story. We know what's about to happen, and it's a deflating feeling.

This fealty and predictability is also what somewhat insulates the movie from being worse: yes, it's an inferior photocopy, but it's also adhering to a story and characters strong enough to be functional even in watered-down form. And yes, there are isolated moments where that strength allows us to feel something for these versions of the character: not the Beast, but occasionally Belle courtesy of Emma Watson’s committed performance, and Luke Evans gives his Gaston at least the promise of an additional dimension that lets us view him momentarily as something more than an antagonist. It's just all overruled by banal decisions either loyalty-based or all of its own making (ex: taking the character of Le Fou and, pointlessly, making him gay in a way that only serves to resurrect the Evil Queer archetype, no matter where his loyalties ultimately lie). By the end, as the wispy strands of the movie begin evaporating, we realize we've just spent two hours sitting and listening to Disney tell us, “Remember that thing you loved? Here it is again, in the same way, but longer and with less visual distinction, and a few wrinkles.” There are worse ways than this to spend our time, but there are also incalculably better.

2.5 out of 5